In the town where Susan B. Anthony was born, just six women have ever served on the Board of Selectmen.
The irony is not lost on the sixth woman, Christine Hoyt, who first ran for office after the 2016 election.
“I got to stand in the birthplace of Susan B. Anthony and cast a ballot for a woman to be the president of the United States,” she said. “That’s when I started thinking, ‘I’d like to see more women, more people who look like me, serving here. How do we do that?’”
On Thursday, Hoyt joined other local leaders, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, at the unveiling of an eight-foot statue of Anthony in the Adams Town Commons. The proceedings were a celebration of the pioneering suffrage activist, but also a reminder of the obstacles women still face in local politics, around the country and in the Berkshires.
Women make up just 20 percent of mayors, select board members and city councilors across Berkshire County, about the same rate as in 2019.
Though they fill critical functions on planning boards, parent teacher associations and town commissions, and often serve as town clerks, moderators, administrators and more, women remain underrepresented at the highest levels of local government, and in state and federal representation for the county.
There is just one woman in the county’s five-person state delegation, and there are four in the federal delegation, out of 11 total representatives and senators. The county also has a female district attorney.
Across the country, women make up 30 percent of local municipal office holders, according to the Center for American Women and Politics – and they hold 31 percent of seats across Massachusetts, though the center tracks only municipalities with 10,000 or more residents.
Why women run
Spurred to help elect women to local offices after President Trump’s victory, Hoyt turned to the late state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi. They met in a coffee shop just days after the election.
She told Cariddi she wanted to see more women, and particularly young women, running for select boards and city councils.
“What about you?” Cariddi asked.
Hoyt immediately said no. She didn’t have the qualifications, she argued. It took several more requests and four months before she changed her mind. Later, she would recognize that same hesitation in other women.
“I think we tend to overthink it,” she told The Eagle. “‘Do we have this qualification, that qualification?’ Where a man might look and say, ‘Oh, ok, there’s an opening, I’ll do it.’”
Now, she tries to encourage other women to run. Some of them have the same worries about qualifications, but she also hears another major concern: The challenge of fitting the responsibilities of local government alongside professional obligations, housework and, often, caregiving.
National data show that, on average, women in heterosexual couples are responsible for the majority of housework, and the weight of household responsibilities tends to fall even more heavily on women for couples with children.
“That’s real, for anybody who wants to take on this role, whatever their gender,” said Hoyt. “You have to have a support network.”
Anne O’Connor, who recently left the Williamstown Select Board after her second term, had that support from her parents who lived in town when she first ran. Her kids were also old enough to stay home alone.
“It’s undeniable that you have to have those points figured out,” she said. “You’re going to have to figure out meal plans. And, is the house tidy and safe enough to leave the kids?”
‘Dumb it down’
Once elected, women described a variety of small and large challenges, often resulting from an interplay of stereotypes, personal expectations and the typical stressors of local politics.
Most said they were respected on boards and councils but that their own expectations for themselves, which they often attributed to internalized gender stereotypes, had an impact on their experience. And many could name interactions that they suspected were influenced at least somewhat by gender.
O’Connor noticed it when a man tried to tell her how she should run the board during her year as chair. Kim Tobin, a member of a rare majority-female Select Board in Windsor, feels it every time a man repeats what she had just said in a meeting and gets a better response.
Lisa Blackmer, the City Council vice president in North Adams, remembers floating the idea of a mayoral run and being told by some community members to “dumb it down.”
“They said I’d be perceived as elitist, or a know-it-all,” she said. “People don’t like smart women.”
Women leaders also said they feel they have to mute their reactions in heated situations.
“I’ve never walked away from a meeting,” said Tobin. “I try not to lose my temper because I know it’ll reflect badly and be interpreted differently than if I were a man.”
Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer’s awareness of her gender in her political life has also often involved softening her expressions of frustration or anger, she told The Eagle.
“I can’t lose my temper the way that a male leader might be able to,” she said. “I can’t have an emotional reaction to a situation the way a male leader might be able to.”
She stressed that this experience was a personal struggle. “I’m not saying it’s true for all women,” she added. “It’s my feeling that I have to temper and moderate my public presence.”
Some leaders told The Eagle their gender made almost no impact on their experience, and they attributed their success, in part, to women who had come before.
“I’ve only been here about 30 years, and I can’t remember when there was not at least one woman on the Select Board,” said Rene Wood, who chairs that panel in Sheffield. “Women have held so many positions in town. It’s not the exception to the rule, it is the rule.”
Wood says that, in her early days on the board, her status as a geographic outsider – she was born in California, not the Berkshires – made her feel out of place, not her gender.
Yuki Cohen, a city councilor in Pittsfield, has had a similar experience.
If she ever feels treated differently than her peers on the council, she says, “It’s not because I’m a woman. It’s because I’m an outsider, I’m new, and my thinking is more progressive.”
Cohen also said it is relatively easy to be a Korean woman on the panel, one of few non-white local leaders, because she was able to follow in the footsteps of Pittsfield City Councilor Helen Moon.
“Helen paved the way for me,” she said. “She speaks up, she speaks her mind.”
Inspiring other women
Almost all the women described being encouraged by mentors, often, but not always, other women.
Tyer says she made the leap into local government for several reasons, but she would never have thought about running without the support of Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods, a political action committee.
“At no point up until then had I ever considered [running for office],” she said. “But I was so inspired by the powerful women that ran this PAC.” That can create a pipeline of women in local, state and national offices, Tyer said.
“It’s getting better and we have to get going,” she said. “Each time a woman succeeds, it lays the groundwork for women coming up behind. With every success, you’ve gotta reach back and bring someone with you.”
After she was first elected in North Adams, Blackmer found support through the Massachusetts Municipal Association, as well as from state and federal races she volunteered on, where she met people who mentored and inspired her and introduced her to national organizations promoting female leadership.
O’Connor suggested that increasing formal mentorship on boards and councils, for all new members, could encourage more women to take up those roles.
She hopes more women will run, in large part because they already do so much in communities, propping up families, neighborhoods and municipalities. Having more women in public-facing roles, she says, would send a clear message about the kind of society she hopes to build.
“It makes a difference,” she said. “Even if it’s only a symbolic difference.”